Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his

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The sudden return of spring should have gladdened Maegwin's heart. All over Hernystir the untimely rains and cruel frosts had drawn a shroud over both the land and her father Lluth's people. Flowers had frozen in the ground, unborn. Apples had dropped small and sour from the gnarled branches in the orchards. The sheep and cows, put out to graze in sodden fields, came back with rolling, frightened eyes, unnerved by hailstones and gusting winds.
A blackbird, insolently waiting until the last moment, hopped up from Maegwin's path into the denuded branches of a cherry tree where he trilled disputatiously. Maegwin paid him no heed, but hitched up her long dress and hurried toward her father's hall.
She ignored the voice calling her name at first, unwilling to be hindered in her errand. Finally, reluctantly, she turned to see her half brother Gwythinn running toward her. She stopped and waited for him, arms folded.
Gwythinn's white tunic was disordered, and his golden neck torque had ridden halfway around to the back, as though he were a child instead of a young man of warrior age. He caught up and stood panting; she gave a snort of dismay and set to straightening out his garments. The prince smirked, but waited patiently while she pulled the torque around to lie against his collarbone. His long brown mane of hair had largely pulled free of the red cloth holding it in a careless horse tail. As she reached around to tie it, their faces were eye-to-eye, although Gwythiirn was by no means a short man. Maegwin scowled.
"Bagba's Herd, Gwythinn, look at you! You must do better. You will be king someday!"
"And what has being king to do with how my hair is worn? Besides, I was handsome enough when I started out, but I had to run like the very wind to catch you, you with those long legs."
Maegwin flushed as she turned away. Her height was something about which, try as she might, she could not be matter-of-fact.
"Well, you've caught me up now. Are you going to the hall?"
"I certainly am." A sterner expression ran across Gwythinn's face like quicksilver, and he tugged at his long mustache. "I have things I must say to our father."
"As do I," Maegwin nodded, walking now. Their strides and heights so evenly matched, their sorrel-colored hair so alike it might have been spun from one wheel, any outsider would have guessed they were twins, instead of Maegwin five years older and from a different mother.
"Our best brood sow, Aeghonwye, died evening last. Another one, Gwythinn! What is happening? Is it another plague, like at Abaingeat?"
"If it is a plague," her brother said grimly, fingering the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword, "I know who brought it here. That man is a sickness on legs." He slapped the pommel and spat. "I only pray that he speaks out of turn today. Brynioch! Would I love to cross blades with that one!"
Maegwin narrowed her eyes. "Don't be a fool," she said crossly, "Guthwulf has killed a hundred men. And, strange as it may seem, he is a guest at the Taig."
"A guest who insults my father!" Gwythinn snarled, pulling his elbow from Maegwin's gentle, prisoning grasp. "A guest who brings threats from a High King drowning in his own poor kingship—a king who struts and bullies and spends golden corns like they were pebbles, then turns to Hernystir and demands we help him!" Gwythinn's voice was rising, and his sister darted a glance around, worried who might hear. There was no one in sight but the pale shapes of the door guards a hundred paces away. "Where was King Elias when we lost the road to Naarved and Elvritshalla? When bandits and the gods know what else descended on the Frostmarch Road?" Face flushed again, the prince looked up to find Maegwin no longer at his side. He turned to see her standing, arms folded, ten steps behind.
"Have you finished, Gwythinn?" she asked. He nodded, but his mouth was tight. "Good, then. The difference between our father and yourself, fellow, is more than only thirty-some years. In those years he has learned when to speak, and when to keep his thoughts inside. That is why, thanks to him, someday you stand to be King Gwythinn, and not just the Duke of Hernystir-Duchy."
Gwythinn stared for a long moment. "I know," he said at last, "you would have me be like Eolair, and bow and scrape to the dogs of Erkynland. I know you think Eolair is the sun and moon—regarding not what he thinks of you, king's daughter though you be—but I am not such a man. We are Hernystiri! We crawl for no one!"
Maegwin glared, stung by the jab over her feelings for the Count of Nad Mullach—about whom Gwythinn was exactly right: the attention he showed her was only that due to a king's gawky, unmarried daughter. But the tears she dreaded did not come; instead, as she looked at Gwythinn, his handsome face twisted by frustration, by pride, and not least by genuine love of his people and land, she saw again the little brother she had once carried on her shoulder—and whom she herself had, from time to time, teased into tears.
"Why are we fighting, Gwythinn?" she asked wearily. "What has brought this shadow down on our house?"
Her brother lowered his gaze to his boot tops, embarrassed, then extended his hand. "Friends and allies," he said. "Come, let us go in and see Father before the Earl of Utanyeat comes slinking in to bid fond farewells."
The windows of the Taig's great hall were thrown open; the sunlight streaming through was full of sparkling dust from the rushes spread across the floor. The thick wall timbers, hewed from the oak trees of the Circoille, were fitted so carefully that not a gleam of light showed between them. Up among the roofbeams hung a thousand painted carvings of the gods of the Hernystiri, of heroes and monsters, all twisting slowly in the rafters as reflected light shone warmly on their polished wooden features.
At the hall's far end, sun splashing in on either side. King Lluth ubh-Llythinn sat in his huge oaken chair, beneath the carved stag's head that strained upward from the chair's back, antlers of real horn fixed to its wooden skull. The king was eating a bowl of porridge and honey with a bone spoon while Inahwen, his young wife, sat on a lower chair at his side, putting a tracery of delicate stitching onto the hem of one of Lluth's robes.
As the sentries banged their spear points twice upon their shields to signal Gwythinn's arrival—lesser nobility such as Count Eolair received only a single beat, while the king himself received three, and Maegwin not a one—Lluth looked up and smiled, placing his bowl down on the arm of his chair and wiping his gray mustache on his sleeve. Inahwen saw the gesture and gave Maegwin a despairing woman-to-woman look that Lluth's daughter resented more than a little. Maegwin had never really gotten used to Gwythinn's mother Fiathna taking the place of her own (Maegwin's mother Penemhwye had died when Maegwin was four), but at least Fiathna had been Lluth's age, not a mere girl like Inahwen! Still, this young, golden-haired woman was good-hearted, although perhaps a little slow of wit. It was not really Inahwen's fault she was a third wife.
"Gwythinn!" Lluth half-rose, brushing crumbs from the lap of his belted yellow robe. "Are we not lucky to have the sun today?" The king swept a hand window-ward, as pleased as a child who has learned a trick. "It is a certain thing that we need a little, eh? And perhaps it will help to put our guests from Erkynland," he made a wry face, his mobile, clever features shifting into a look of bemusement, eyebrows arching above the thick, crooked nose broken in his boyhood, "to put them in a more agreeable mood. Do you think?"
"No, I do not think that, father," Gwythinn said, approaching as the king settled back into his antler-crested seat. "And I hope the answer you give them today, if I may presume, will send them away in an even fouler one." He pulled up a stool and sat at the king's feet just below the raised platform, sending a harper scuttling. "One of Guthwulf's soldiers picked a fight with old Craobhan last evening. I had a hard time preventing Craobhan from feathering the bastard's back with an arrow."
Lluth looked troubled for a moment, then the look was gone, hidden behind the smiling mask that Maegwin knew so well.
Ah, father, she thought even you are finding it a bit hard to keep the music playing while these creatures bay all around the Taig. She walked quietly forward and sat on the platform by Gwythinn's stool.
"Well, the king grinned ruefully, "sure it is that King Elias could have chosen his diplomats with a bit more care. But today in an hour they are gone, and peace descends again on Hernysadharc." Lluth snapped his fingers and a serving boy sprang forward to take his dish of porridge away. Inahwen watched critically as it went by.
"There," she said reproachfully. "You didn't finish again. What am I to do with your father?" she added, this time directing her gaze to Maegwin, smiling fondly as though Maegwin, too, was a soldier in the constant battle to make Lluth finish his meals.
Maegwin, still at a loss as to how to deal with a mother a year younger than herself, hastily broke the silence. "Aeghonwye died, Father. Our best, and the tenth sow this month. And some of the others have gotten very thin."
The king frowned. "This cursed weather. If Elias could but keep this spring sun overhead, I'd give him any tax he asked." He reached down to pat Maegwin's arm, but was not quite able to reach. "All we can do is pile more rushes in the barns to keep out the chill. Failing that, we are in the godly hands of Brynioch and Mircha."
There was another metallic clash of spear on shield, and the door-speaker appeared, hands nervously clasped.
"Your Highness," he called, "the Earl of Utanyeat requests an audience."
Lluth smiled. "Our guests have decided to say farewell before they take to their horses. Of course! Please, bring Earl Guthwulf in immediately."
But their guest, followed by several of his armored but unsworded men, was already moving past the ancient servant.
Guthwulf dropped slowly to his knee five paces before the platform. "Your majesty... ah, and the prince, as well. I am fortunate." There was no hint of mockery in his voice, but his green eyes held an unsubtle fire. "And Princess Maegwin,"—a smile—"the Rose of Hernysadharc."
Maegwin struggled to maintain her composure. "Sir, there was only one Rose of Hernysadharc," she said, "and since she was the mother of your King Elias, I am surprised it should slip your mind."
Guthwulf nodded gravely. "Of course, lady, I sought only to pay a compliment, but I must take exception to your calling Elias my king. Is he not yours, too, under the High Ward?"
Gwythinn shifted on his stool, turning to see what his father's reaction would be; his scabbard scraped on the wooden platform.
"Of course, of course," Lluth waved his hand slowly, as if beneath deep water. "We have been through all this, and I see no need to belabor it. I recognize the debt of my house to King John. We have always honored it, in peace or war."
"Yes." The Earl of Utanyeat stood, dusting the knees of his breeches. "But what about your house's debt to King Elias? He has shown great tolerance..."
Inahwen stood up, and the robe she had been sewing slid to the floor. "You must excuse me," she said breathlessly, plucking the garment up, "there are things in the household I should attend to." The king waved his permission and she walked quickly but carefully between the waiting men and slid out the half-opened door of the hall, as lithely as a doe.
Lluth breathed a quiet sigh; Maegwin looked at him, seeing the always-surprising lines of age that wreathed her father's face.
He is tired, and she, Inahwen, is frightened. Maegwin thought. I wonder what I am? Angry? I'm not sure—exhausted, really.
As the king stared at Elias' messenger, the room seemed to darken. For a moment Maegwin feared that clouds had covered the sun, that the winter was returning; then she realized it was only her own apprehension, her sudden feeling that something more than her father's peace of mind hung in the balance here.
"Guthwulf," the king began, and his voice sounded bowed as though beneath a great weight, "do not think to provoke me today... but neither think that you can cow me. The king has shown no tolerance for the troubles of the Hernystiri at all. We have weathered a bitter drought, and now the rains for which we thanked all the gods a thousand times have themselves become a curse. What penalty that Elias can threaten me with can exceed that of seeing my people frightened, our cattle starving? I can pay no greater tithe."
The Earl of Utanyeat stood silently for a moment, and the blankness of his expression slowly hardened into something that to Maegwin looked unsettlingly like jubilation.
"No greater penalty?" the Earl said, savoring each word as though it felt good on his tongue. "No greater tithe?" He spat a wad of citril juice on the ground before the king's chair. Several of Lluth's men-at-arms actually cried out in horror; the harper who had been quietly playing in the corner dropped his instrument with a discordant crash.
"Dog!" Gwythinn leaped up, his stool clattering away. In a flashing moment his sword was out and at Guthwulf's throat. The earl only stared, his chin tipped ever so slightly back.
"Gwythinn!" Lluth barked, "Sheathe, damn you, sheathe!"
Guthwulf's lip curled. "Let him. Go ahead, pup, kill the High King's Hand unarmed!" There was a clanking by the door as some of his men, their astonishment thawing, started to move forward. Guthwulf's hand shot up. "No! Even if this whelp should slit my weasand from ear to ear, no one shall strike back! You walk out and ride to Erkynland. King Elias will be... most interested." His men, confused, stood in place like armored scarecrows.
"Let him go, Gwythinn," Lluth said, cold anger in his voice. The prince, face flushed, glared at the Erkynlander for a long moment, then dropped his blade back to his side. Guthwulf passed a finger over the tiny cut on throat and gazed coolly at his own blood. Maegwin realized she had been holding her breath; at the sight of the crimson smear on the Earl's fingertip, she let it whistle out again.
"You will live to tell Elias yourself, Utanyeat." Only a slight tremor disturbed the evenness of the king's tone. "I hope you will tell him as well the mortal insult you have paid to the House of Hem, an insult that would have gained your death had you not been Elias' emissary and King's Hand. Go."
Guthwulf turned and walked to where his men stood, wild-eyed. When he reached them he pivoted on one heel, facing Lluth across the expanse of the great hall.
"Remember that you could think of no greater tithe you could pay," he said, "if someday you hear fire in the beams of the Taig, and your children crying." He strode heavily through the door.
Maegwin, her hands shaking, bent and picked up a piece of the shattered harp, and wound its curling string around her hand. She raised her head to look at her father and brother; what she saw there made her turn back again to the shard of wood in her palm, and the string pulled tight against her white skin.
Breathing a soft Wrannaman curse, Tiamak stared disconsolately at the empty cage of reeds. It was his third trap, and there had not been a crab yet. The fishhead that had baited it was, of course, gone without trace. Glaring down into the muddy water, he had a sudden nervous premonition that the crabs were somehow a step ahead of him—were perhaps even now waiting for him to drop the cage down lardered with another pop-eyed head. He could picture a whole tribe of them scuttling over with expressions of glee to poke the bait out through the bars with a stick or some other such tool recently granted to crab-kind by some beneficent crustacean deity.
Did the crabs worship him as a soft-shelled providing angel, he wondered, or did they look up at him with the cynical indifference of a gang of ne'er-do-wells taking the measure of a drunkard before relieving him of his purse?
He felt sure it was the latter. He rebaited the carefully woven cage and, with a soft sigh, let it splash down into the water, uncoiling its rope behind as it sank.
The sun was just slipping below the horizon, washing the long sky above the marsh in shades of orange and persimmon-red. As Tiamak poled his flatboat through the Wran's waterways—distinguishable in places from the land only by the lesser height of the vegetation—he had a sinking feeling that today's ill luck was only the beginning of a long rising tide. He had broken his best bowl that morning, the one that he had spent two days writing Roahog the Potter's ancestor-list to pay for; in the afternoon he had shattered a pen nib and spattered a great gobbet of berry-juice ink across his manuscript, ruining an almost completed page. And now, unless the crabs had decided to hold some kind of festival in the cramped confines of his last trap, there was going to be precious little to eat tonight. He was growing so very tired of root soup and rice biscuits.
As he silently approached the last float, a latticework ball of reeds, he offered an unspoken prayer to He Who Always Steps on Sand that even now the little bottom-walkers were pushing and shoving their way into the cage below. Because of his unusual education, which included a year living on Perdruin—unheard of for a Wrannaman—Tiamak did not really believe in He Who Steps on Sand anymore, but he still held a fondness for him, such as might be felt for a senile grandfather who often tumbled down from the house, but once brought nuts and carved toys. Besides, it never hurt to pray, even if one did not believe in the object of prayer. It helped to compose the mind, and, at the very least, it impressed others.
The trap came up slowly, and for a moment Tiamak's heart sped a little in his thin brown chest, as if seeking to drown out the expectant noises of his stomach. But the sensation of resistance was short-lived, probably some clinging root which had held and then slipped away, and the cage suddenly popped up and bobbed on the water's cloudy surface. Something was moving inside; he lifted the cage up, interposing it between himself and the sunset-glaring sky, squinting. Two tiny, stalked eyes goggled back at him, eyes that wobbled atop a crab that would disappear in his palm if he folded his fingers over it.
Tiamak snorted. He could imagine what had happened here: the older, rowdier crab-brothers goading the littlest into assaying the trap; the youngling, caught inside, weeping while his crude brothers laughed and waved their claws. Then the giant shadow of Tiamak, the cage suddenly tugged upward, the crab-brothers staring abashediy at each other, wondering how they would .explain Baby's absence to Mother.
Still, Tiamak thought, considering the hollowish feeling in his middle, if this was all he had to show for today... it was small, but it would go nicely in the soup. He squinted into the cage again, then upended it, shaking the prisoner out onto his palm. Why delude himself? This was a run-on-the-sandbar day, and that was that.
The crablet made a plopping noise as he dropped it back into the water. He did not even bother to resink the trap.
As he climbed the long ladder from his moored boat to the little house perched in the banyan tree, Tiamak vowed to be content with soup and a biscuit. Gluttony was an obstacle, he reminded himself, an impediment between the soul and the realms of truth. As he reeled the ladder up onto the porch he thought of She Who Birthed Mankind, who had not even had a nice bowl of root soup, but had subsisted entirely on rocks and dirt and swamp water until they combined in her stomach and she whelped a litter of clay men, the first humans.
There, that made root soup a real bargain, didn't it? Besides, he had much work to do anyway—repair or rewrite the blotched manuscript page, for one thing. Among his tribesmen he was thought of as merely strange, but somewhere out in the world there would be people who would read his revision of Sovran Remedys of the Wranna Healers and realize that there were minds of true learning in the marshes. But ay! a crab would have gone down smartly—that and a jug of fem beer.
As Tiamak washed his hands in the water bowl he had put out before leaving, crouching because there was no room to sit between his obsessively scraped and polished writing board and his water jug, he heard a scratching sound on the roof. He listened carefully as he wiped his hands dry on his waistcloth. It came again: a dry rustle, like his broken pen being rubbed across the thatching.
It took him only a moment to slide out the window and climb hand over hand onto the sloping roof. Grasping one of the banyan's long, curving limbs he made his way up to where a little bark-roofed box sat atop the roof peak, an infant house carried on its mother's back. He ducked his head into the box's open end.
It was there, right enough: a gray sparrow, pecking briskly at the seeds that were scattered across the floor. Tiamak reached in a gentle hand to enfold it; then, as carefully as he could, he climbed down the roof and slid in through the window.
He put the sparrow in the crab cage he kept hanging from the roofbeam for just such occasions, and quickly made a fire. When the flames began to lick up from the stone hearth, he removed the bird from the cage, his eyes smarting as the smoke began to coil toward the hole in the ceiling.
The sparrow had lost a feather or two from its tail, and held one wing out a bit from its side as though it had come through some scrapes on its way down from Erkynland. He knew it had come from Erkynland because it was the only sparrow he had ever raised. His other birds were marsh doves, but Morgenes insisted on sparrows for some reason—funny old man, he was.
After he had set a pot of water on the flames, Tiamak did what he could for the awkward silver wing, then put down more seeds and a hollow curl of bark full of water. He was tempted to wait until he had eaten to read the message, to hold off the pleasure of faraway news as long as possible, but on a day like this one had been, such patience was too much to expect of himself. He mashed some rice flour up in the mortar, added some pepper and water, then spread the mixture out and rolled it into a cake which he set on the fire stone to bake.
The slip of parchment that had been wrapped around the sparrow's leg was ragged at the edges, and the printed characters were smeared, as though the bird had gotten more than a little wet, but he was used to such things and soon sorted it out. The notation signifying the date when it had been written surprised him: the gray sparrow had taken nearly a month to reach the Wran. The message surprised him even more, but it was not the kind of surprise he had been hoping for.
It was with a feeling of cold weight in his stomach superceding any hunger that he went to the window, looking out past the tangled banyan branches to the fast-blooming stars. He stared into the northern sky, and for a moment could almost believe he felt a cold wind knifing in, driving a wedge of chill through the warm air of the Wran. He was a long time at the window before he noticed the smell of his supper burning.

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